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'The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder' shows a devotion to readers

In her letters, just as in her books and in person, Laura Ingalls Wilder is effortlessly sunny good company.

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The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder
Edited by William Anderson
Harper
432 pp.

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Editor William Anderson chooses to sound a distinctly funereal note in his superb new collection, The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder. This is the final collection of unpublished writings from the author of the "Little House" books, he tells his readers, stressing: “There no longer remains a well of her words left to print.” Part of this is doubtless a nod to the many Wilder volumes HarperCollins has published over the years, from "On the Way Home" to "The First Four Years" to "West from Home" to "A Little House Sampler," and part of it might also be an attempt to assure readers that this is Wilder's positively final appearance, since new literary bits and books have been coming to light on a fairly regular basis since the author died in 1957.

Its bittersweet in either case, since in her letters, just as in her books and in person, Laura Ingalls Wilder is effortlessly sunny good company.

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She was born in rural small-village Wisconsin in 1867 and she traveled to Missouri, Kansas, Minnesota, and finally South Dakota with her homesteading parents and her siblings. In 1885 she married Almanzo Wilder, and they made their home in South Dakota, where their daughter Rose was born in 1889.

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The family eventually moved to Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Missouri, which they worked for the next five decades. In 1932 the first of the “Little House” books, "Little House in the Big Woods," was published and achieved an almost instant success that only grew greater and greater with each new volume, "Farmer Boy," "Little House on the Prairie," "On the Banks of Plum Creek," "By the Shores of Silver Lake," "The Long Winter," "Little Town on the Prairie," and "These Happy Golden Years." The flow of growing royalties served to repair the Wilder's rocky finances, and the books made Laura a  cultural hero to whole generations of schoolchildren, who deluged Rocky Ridge Farm with fan mail.

There are many warm and touching aspects of "The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder," but the best of them all is just this relationship Wilder developed with her readers, including her very young readers. Rocky Ridge Farm received sacks of correspondence every day, and Anderson makes the very winning decision to include some of these heartfelt notes along with Wilder's responses. “Would you send me your recipe [for gingerbread]?” writes a third-grader from Marion, Illinois. “If you will I shall allow the rest of the children to copy it. After our mothers have made gingerbread we shall put the recipe in our scrapbooks.” “I enjoyed your books very much,” writes a little boy named Donald. “I liked the time when Charley got stung by the yellow jackets.”

Wilder dutifully responded to all of these letters from her young readers, and her gentle, teacherly tone when writing to children contrasts intriguingly with the anthology's other main thread, Laura Ingalls Wilder the professional, working writer. There are back-and-forth discussions about book advances, Hollywood deals (or the lack thereof), publicity campaigns (including a “Little House” line of clothing), and reprint terms for her book series, and watching Wilder grow more assured about the business side of her writing life is fascinating.

This particular thread is very nearly commandeered by Wilder's editor at the juvenile division of Harper & Row, the inimitable figure Anderson simply (and accurately) refers to as “the great Ursula Nordstrom,” a joyful force of nature whose colleagues nicknamed her “Ursula Maelstrom.” In these letters, we get echoes of Nordstrom's ebullient charm as it washes over Wilder, presenting her with the praise of readers and proposing publicity ideas and author profiles in places like Horn Book Magazine. Readers of Nordstrom's own letters-collection, "Dear Genius," will recall how delighted and honored she was to work with Wilder's literary legacy.

That literary legacy had a kind of price tag to it; the older Laura got, the more openly she began to pine for the rough-and-tumble wilderness life she immortalizes in her books. In 1947, for instance, she was asked what she thinks of modern life, and her response held a note of nostalgia that would be very familiar to all the readers who fell in love with the “Little House” series: “I think,” she wrote, “it was easier and we were happier fighting all the difficulties and dangers of our pioneer life, than anyone is fighting the complicated system of life that has been thrust upon us now.”

Laura Ingalls Wilder contracted pneumonia at the age of 90 and died peacefully on 10 February, 1957, and as Anderson writes, “Sad-faced elementary students brought newspaper obituaries to their equally grieved teachers.” Memorials were held all over the United States, and the truest of these has been the unbroken life of the “Little House” in print, continuing to mesmerize readers young and old with stories about courage and humor on a now-vanished frontier. Despite William Anderson's warning, reading these wonderfully human letters will make every reader hope for more, someday.


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